Croats rejoice while Serbs fume at UN court decision
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Two Croatian ex-generals acquitted by the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes court came home as heroes on Friday. But the ruling has sparked outrage in Serbia and threatens to strain already fraught relations between the two countries.
Tens of thousands of jubilant Croats gathered in the capital of Zagreb on Friday to welcome home two former generals who were dramatically acquitted by the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes court earlier in the day. However, Serbia reacted bitterly to the decision, warning it would reduce its cooperation with the international tribunal.
Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were last year jailed for 24 and 18 years respectively for the murder of Croatian Serbs during their country's struggle for independence two decades ago.
But on Friday, an appeals court overturned the conviction after ruling that Croatian artillery attacks on Serb-inhabited towns did not amount to unlawful attacks on civilians.
Judges at the Hague also rejected the lower court's finding that there was "a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was the permanent and forcible removal of Serb civilians from the Krajina region" in Croatia.
The successful appeal marks the biggest reversal for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in its near 20 years of hearing cases resulting from the 1991-95 wars that shattered the Yugoslav federation.
Croatians consider the two ex-generals national heroes, and celebrated the ruling late into the night in Zagreb’s main square, where earlier crowds watched the generals acquitted in a live broadcast.
But less than 400 kilometres away in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the news drew anger from Serbians.
“It is now quite clear the tribunal has made a political decision and not a legal ruling. Today's ruling will not contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in the region
and will open old wounds," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a written statement.
The UN refugee agency has put the number of Serbs who fled from an attack conducted by Gotovina and Markac, known as Operation Storm, at 250,000. Other UN agencies estimate some 600 people were killed in Operation Storm, while around 20,000 people died overall in the Croatian war.
Many Serbs suggested the reversal of the previous decision was politically motivated to allow Croatia to enter the European Union with a clean slate next July. Belgrade said it would scale back its cooperation with the UN court in protest.
Meanwhile, Washington said it supported the decision. “We note the judgment of the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We fully support ICTY, and we accept its ruling,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Friday.
(France 24 with news wires)